Asia / History / Recommended books / Writing

Tempyoo no Iraka

File:Ganjin wajyo portrait.JPG

In my previous article Some thoughts about myself and earlier in Some notes on books I noted that I am not very interested in reading fiction. I don’t read many novels. One of the exceptions, in fact one of my favorite books, is Inoue Yasushi’s “Tempyoo no Iraka”, translated into English by James T. Araki as “The roof tile of Tempyoo”. I have read this book more than once, in the German translation made by the renowned Japanologist Oskar Benl.

I don’t know exactly what fascinates me in this book. It is, I suppose, its “dry”, almost chronicle-like style that appeals to me. There are not very many dialogues. I guess some readers would find this book uninteresting or even boring. In my view, however, it is a masterpiece I cannot get tired of.

The book tells the story of a group of 8th century Japanese monks who travel to China to study Buddhism and bring a learned master of monastic practices, the monk Jianzhen (Japanese Ganjn, see picture) to Japan. Based on historical events and sometimes citing from historical documents, Inoue tells this story in a unique, minimalist style, quite unlike the common historical novel. Let me present a short section from the book to illustrate this. In the first chapter, after depicting the preparations for the expedition, Inoue describes the departure of the ships, citing historical poems from an ancient anthology of poems:

When hoarfrost falls

On the moor where travelers

Seek shelter for repose

Enfold my child with your wings,

O flock of cranes of heaven!

This poem, in the ninth book of A Colection o a Myriad Leaves, was composed by a woman who had come to see her only child board one of the ships bound for the T’ang empire. There is another, in the eighth book, composed by the courtier Kasa Kanamura and presented on that day to the ambassador to T’ang China:

Beyond the waves

A small island vanishes

Behind the clouds.

Were we to be so parted,

Oh, the choking grief?

This poem, however, would have been appropriate for a woman coming to bid her husband farewell. Surely kasa Kanamura had composed it on behalf of an acquaintance.

Another author, confronted with the task of describing the parting of a man and a woman, might have invented a family with several people and several pages of story, complete with their thoughts and dialogues. Not so Inoue. With a few words, almost citations from history books, and two poems taken out of an 8th century anthology of poems, he just hints at people and their lives, as if sketching them in indian ink, only slightly transcending the historical sources with a thin layer of fiction.

The book for which the author earned the Japanese Ministry of Education Prize in 1958 and which has the status of a modern classic in Japan, might not be the kind of novel most western readers like or expect, but I absolutely love it.

(The picture of the statue of Ganjin is from

One thought on “Tempyoo no Iraka

  1. After reading this book several times in German, I am just enjoying the English version I bought second hand. I just read this and think it fits (page 10): “Although it was spring, the petals of cherry blossoms were still tightly folded, and the breeze at daybreak bore the chill of midwinter.”
    Sounds familiar.

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